TL;DR – Tips from a millionaire.
His father reared pigs. When his father had more pigs than he could find buyers for, he rented a stall to sell pork. That was back in 1985. From that one stall, he is now the CEO of a supermarket chain with 43 stores.
He is Mr Lim Hock Chee, the CEO and founder of Sheng Siong.
So, how did he go from a selling pork at one stall to being a multi-millionaire with an estimated net worth of $730 million?
Recently, we had a chance to attend a learning journey organised by NTUC’s U-SME to Sheng Siong’s warehouse and corporate headquarters in Mandai.
At the learning journey, Mr Lim shared some of his thoughts on leadership, building and growing a successful company.
Here are some of the advice that we hearing from and observing Mr Lim.
Be deeply passionate about what you do
Mr Lim is deeply passionate about what he does. When he speaks about his business, his eyes light up. As he brought us around Sheng Siong’s mega-warehouse, there was a purposeful spring in his step. His passion also shows in how much he knows about every single aspect of his business.
From how the shelves in his warehouse are filled, to how goods get moved to the various supermarkets, from how much the LED lights of the warehouse cost, to how much his drivers are paid, he was able to answer all the questions about his business that we asked. He was also able to rattle off different statistics about his business – turnover, value of goods lost, staff strength, floor area of his warehouse, etc etc etc.
As we walked around, we noticed that he recognises many of his staff. We got a sense that this is a boss who doesn’t just stay in his office all day, but walks around his warehouse quite often. We also saw him looking around to see if anything was out of place. When we passed by a rubbish bin, he peered into it. He explained that some times staff would throw away things that can actually be recycled. To him, those things are money.
His actions reflected what he later told us:
“As a boss, you never stop. You have to bao sua bao hai (literally “cover mountain cover sea” , i.e. do everything). And you have to follow through. Cannot give up halfway.”
Always think about how to improve
One reason MrLim insists on having such deep knowledge about everything that goes on in his company is because he is constantly thinking about how they can innovate, change, and be different. Only by knowing his company inside out can he know what areas need to be improved on and how.
He is constantly thinking about how things can be done better, faster, and at a lower cost. And his staff know that. That’s why many keep going to him with ideas about new technologies, systems, and ideas. Mr Lim would then find out as much as he can about those new technologies, systems and ideas. This reflects the intense curiosity that he has that more than makes up for his lack of formal education.
Keep making mistakes
In addition to his intense curiosity and desire for improvements, Mr Lim also has the courage to test things out and make mistakes. He told us this:
“The more you do, the more mistakes you make. The less you do, the less mistakes you make. If you don’t do anything, then you won’t make any mistakes. So if you don’t want to make any mistakes, then you don’t do anything. But if you want to do anything, you inevitably will make mistakes. So it’s OK if you make mistakes. It shows that you are doing something.”
He recounted the experience when he and his IT team were designing their self-checkout and payment system. After they had finally completed the first version, Mr Lim thought that they had a very good design. He prototyped it in one of his supermarkets. When he went down to see how it worked, he was initially quite proud of it. Until he heard what one of his customers said. The customer was so upset with the whole system that she thought the people who designed it were complete idiots.
Mr Lim said that he felt so ashamed of himself. But rather than let that stop him, he went back to work with his team to improve the system. They went through four iterations before coming up with the current version that is now rolled out in some of their bigger supermarkets. The current system, it seems, has received good feedback from customers.
Go for value for money
In the process of improving, Mr Lim focusses on value for money. At times, that means hunting for the cheaper option. For example, the LED lights of his warehouse are from China. They cost about SGD200 each. If Mr Lim had gotten something similar from Singapore, it would have cost about SGD900 each.
But no, in case you’re thinking Mr Lim is someone who would always cheap-source, stop right there. It’s really more about value-for-money and whether the products and services can meet his requirements too.
So, there are times when he chooses not to source for items from China, even though that would have been the way cheaper option.
One example he shared was the insulated containers that Sheng Shiong uses for the distribution of fresh meat and fish. He told us that if he were to buy from China, each would cost him only SGD1,000. But he chose to buy from a French company, where each container costs SGD1,800. The reason being that the one from the French company was more durable and able to keep the products fresher for longer. The Chinese technology is currently not sophisticated enough. So there, not everything is about how cheap.
Nurturing the right culture
Mr Lim told us that improvements in productivity and profit margins go beyond just putting in place technology, machines, and systems. He said that the most important aspect is to change the mindset of the people in the company and nurturing the right culture. Without the right mindset and culture, the best technology or systems will still be useless.
(Haha, a case of wise men think alike? This was what the Labour Chief had said about the 4Ms! Apart from Men, Machine, Method, Minister Chan Chun Sing had said that Mindset is, really, the prerequisite for innovation and changes.)
That’s why Mr Lim takes various approaches to nurture the right culture. This includes going the extra mile in taking care of the welfare of his staff. Amongst other things, Sheng Siong provides one free meal a day for all of its staff. Mr Lim also tries to make it easier for his staff to do their job. As Mr Lim puts it:
“If you don’t take care of your staff, then they may end up being taken care of by other people!”
In other words, if you don’t have the right culture where you take care of your staff properly, the best of your staff may leave you for your competitors!
Lead by example
But the best way to change mindsets and nurture the right culture, according to Mr Lim, is to lead by example. That is why Mr Lim expects more of himself than he does his staff. Despite his wealth, he still lives a very simple life. A life that he seems to dedicate almost entirely to his business, to serving his customers, and to taking care of his staff.
So. If you want to be a multi-millionaire, be prepared to work really hard, set the right example, build the right culture, keep trying new things, make lots of mistakes, go for value for money, and keep thinking how you can innovate and improve.
If you understand Mandarin, you might be interested to watch this talkshow, Hear Me Out (我有话要说), where Mr Lim was invited to share his thoughts on growing and running his supermarket chain.
What are SMEs?
According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), an SME is defined as an enterprise with an annual sales turnover of under S$100 million, or that employs less than 200 workers.
Did you know that the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) employ some 70% of Singapore workforce today?
What is the U SME?
Established in June 2014, the U SME initiative was set up by the Labour Movement to address the range of critical issues and challenges faced by Small and Medium Enterprises, so as to meet the objectives of making:
- Every SME Workplace a Better Workplace
- Every SME Job a Better Job
- Every SME Worker a Better Worker